Do Fact-checkers Check The Facts?

Written by:
26 April 2024
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In this article, Director of Law and Policy John Storey contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research on fact checking and how it also affects the political freedom of mainstream Australians.

Government should never have the power to determine what is or is not the truth, let alone silence dissenting views. However, what would be even worse is if unelected, unaccountable activists had this power instead.

But that is what the federal government is contemplating under its proposed internet censorship laws.

In private correspondence, released under a Freedom of Information request last year, Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland let slip to the Prime Minister how the government’s proposed ‘misinformation’ Bill would operate. The proposed law would empower the Australian Communications and Media Authority to impose huge fines on social media companies that do not censor ‘misinformation’ to the federal government’s satisfaction.

Minister Rowland confirmed that ‘fact-checking’ organisations are expected to play a central role in this new regime, so much so that Acma will be given the power to request information from ‘other persons such as fact-checkers and third-party platform contractors to monitor compliance with misinformation codes, standards and digital platform rules’. Rowland informed the Prime Minister that ‘the draft bill would give effect to this suggested change’.

The Minister has given the game away. It won’t be the social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube or X charged with the censoring. It won’t even be the faceless public servants at Acma. No, it will be these so-called ‘fact-checkers’.

Today, there are three main, self-appointed organisations in Australia claiming ‘fact-checker’ status; RMIT FactLab, AAP FactCheck, and RMIT ABC Fact Check. These organisations already have arrangements with social media companies in which they investigate ‘misinformation’ and if they render a ‘false’ verdict, the social media platforms will censor that content.

But based on Minister Rowland’s comments, ‘fact-checkers’ will in the future play an even more prominent role, as the enforcers of the government’s internet censorship laws. They, in effect, will be given the power of law to be the official arbiters of truth.

These ‘fact-checkers’ are signatories to a code of principles requiring them to be fair and neutral. This includes that they ‘not concentrate their fact-checking unduly on any one side’ of a debate. Last year, the Institute of Public Affairs investigated how well they complied with this requirement during the Voice referendum campaign. Not surprisingly, they failed miserably.

The IPA reviewed 187 fact-checking investigations which related to the Voice referendum, an enormous 91 per cent (i.e. 170) of which concerned the No campaign. 99 per cent of these were deemed ‘false’. Barely half of the other 17 investigations (concerning the Yes campaign) were deemed ‘false’. RMIT FactLab was the standout, worst offender with every one of its 41 investigations concerning the No campaign.

The IPA expanded its research to other policy areas, which revealed the Voice was not some aberration but, rather, confirmed the left-wing bias of these organisations is systemic and entrenched.

In respect to fact-checks about Australian politicians, there have been 249 investigations conducted over the past five years. 65 per cent of these investigations could be seen as favourable to the political left. Only 35 per cent could be seen as favourable to the political right. A 30 per cent margin of difference, in political terms, is enormous.

The research also looked at ‘fact checks’ into Covid-19, and climate change and energy policy. Of the 534 investigations into claims about Covid-19, a staggering 94 per cent targeted critics of official government responses, with just 6 per cent targeting advocates of the official line. So much for holding government to account!

Climate change and energy were no better. Of 153 investigations, 81 per cent were targeted against critics of the official climate change and energy agenda (that is, man-made carbon emissions are harming the planet, and we need to abolish fossil fuels and mandate alternatives in response). Every single one of these were deemed ‘false’, misleading, or missing context. Yet, remarkably, of the 20 investigations conducted by AAP FactCheck into advocates of the climate change agenda, 76 per cent were deemed ‘true’.

Again, RMIT FactLab was the worst. All of its Covid-19 and climate change investigations – 100 per cent – were targeted at critics. A level of consensus any North Korean dictator could be proud of!

It is clear Australia’s so-called, and self-appointed, fact-checkers have no interest in shining a spotlight on official government policies. Rather, they aim to attack critics and amplify official narratives.

This is not journalism. These are some of the most hotly debated and controversial areas of public policy, yet apparently to ‘fact-checkers’ only one side is worthy of investigation.

Predictably, the left-wing media have leapt to the defence of the ‘fact checkers’. An article that appeared in Crikey on 9 April claims that debunking a conspiracy theory doesn’t favour the political left or right but benefits the whole community. Miraculously, the enrichment of society so graciously offered by the ‘fact-checkers’ just so happens to involve targeting politicians on the political right, compared to the left, to the tune of two to one.

It is no surprise that left-wing journalists will attack any criticisms of ‘fact-checkers’. The utopia of the elite class – one that celebrates the modern media, academia and politics – is a world run by experts. Whether dictating where you can move during the Covid-19 pandemic, or deciding what can be said on the internet, the experts know best. With zero self-awareness, the same Crikey article claims, ‘Everything is a team sport to the outlets and politicians waging a war on fact-checkers in which “truth” becomes a trophy to be awarded rather than a fact to be established’.

But hang on, isn’t it the political left which is advocating for a system in which a select group decides on what is, or is not, ‘misinformation’ for the purpose of censoring alternative viewpoints?

Of course, the defenders of ‘fact checking’ would feel differently if these organisations were populated by conservatives. But, proving yet again the modern left is beyond parody, the author of the Crikey article once worked for AAP Fact Check!

These will be the people who determine what is true or false, and what you can or cannot say on social media.

It will, of course, be mainstream Australians who are silenced online if the federal government gets its way.

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